In The Devil’s Snare, The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 by Mary Beth Norton

Reviewed by LJ Frank

This is brilliant history and a seminal work with thought provoking insights about what extended beyond the village of Salem to the northern frontier and the ferocious battles with what settlers called the First and Second Indian Wars  and the resulting stresses upon local families. The cast of characters is voluminous as it involves families that were at odds with each other over financial obligations and political/social class arrogance among other things, The author digs deep.

Norton writes a tantalizing history of events that traces roots of the witchcraft trials to the Indian Wars on the Maine frontier and the subsequent hysteria. The trials were the result of religious leaders and community members including neighbors seeking scapegoats for the stresses of the wars and the resulting hysteria they created.

In this provocative work Norton mentions many local prominent figures who played a role in pointing fingers at supposed witches that included women, men and children.  This is an intriguing detective like investigation with disturbing and a precise dissection of events that opens the door for further research in one of many dark periods in American history.

None of the accused “witches’ were indeed malevolent people but found to be ruthlessly abused and manipulated that included gossip prevailing over reason with the stress of war that permeated all aspects of daily life. Fear strikes deep in the human soul.

The trials were witness to  the misogynistic percussion of women. “hysterical tales of being tormented by specters falsely accused ‘witches’ bravely refusing to confess, even – erroneously- women being burned at the stake.”

The author’s in-depth scholarship offers details that are compelling. As noted, the cast of characters is more vast than the readers might otherwise surmise and all set within a larger historical context.

From the first page, to give the reader a sense what will follow the author quotes a Justice of the Peace in the introduction,  that judge, John Hawthorne, asks  one of the accused witches, “How long have you been in the snare of the devil?”

This read felt slightly incredulous yet strikingly  logical upon first read over a decade ago but today with so much disinformation one begins to appreciate how “alternative truths”  and the speed of gossip through social media spreads like an uncontrolled virus. The book disturbs and enlightens and the reader  may wonder how far we have progressed.